Saudi Execution Cause Regional Tension

In 2015, Saudi Arabia conducted the highest number of executions in 20 years- 150 killings. The beginning of the New Year confirmed the trend when a Shiite cleric and members of al Qaeda were executed based on terrorist charges in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006. These latest actions have caused further destabilisation between the major Sunni, respectively Shia powers; Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran, which is the heart of Shia Islam, reacted strongly based on the confirmation that religious Shia leader, Nimr al-Nimr, was among the 47 executed. While there were one Egyptian and one Chadian citizen, the remaining were Saudis, four of which were Shia. Sheikh Nimr was a well-known opponent of the ruling of the Saudi and Bahrain monarchy, and was a leader figure of the Shia dominated eastern province during the Arab Spring. Nimr has long fought to increase the rights for the marginalised Shiite community in Saudi Arabia. Demonstrations by Shia Muslims were reported in Iran, Bahrain,  and Pakistan as a response to the executions in order to denounce the political leader’s faith. In Tehran protesters set fire to the Saudi Arabian embassy, which would yield grave geopolitical consequences. According to The Atlantic Iran’s foreign ministry publicly condemned the execution by calling it “the depth of imprudence and irresponsibility” of the Saudi Kingdom. Political figures have said that the implementation of the death sentence of Nimr, which was set in October 2014, would have grave consequences and worsen sectarian tensions in the region. While the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced his dismay of the Saudi executions, the Council further called the Iranian government to protect diplomatic property, based its failure to protect the Saudi embassy. As the Council is seeking to maintain a peaceful dialogue between the two key Sunni respectively Shia Muslim powers, the situation has worsened. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, declared on Sunday, as a response the attack on its embassy, to cease diplomatic ties with Iran. Bahrain and Sunni rich Sudan followed suit the next day in order to display solidarity with Saudi Arabia, blaming Iran of interfering into sovereign politics. Iran, simultaneously accused Saudi Arabia for using the attack on the embassy, as a way of increasing sectorial tensions in the region. But the major global powers are holding their breath, the US, Russia,  and China, have released statements calling for restraint in the already troubled region. They are worried that the situation may escalate into further violence, as the two players have opposed each other in previous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen,  and Lebanon. Many believe that the weekend events may have exacerbated the probability of regional conflict. The huge narrative divide between the powers, which previously have been portrayed as proxy conflicts, will be essential in the weeks to come.


Sally Wennergren